There has been much talk of late about the need for and possibility of creating a National Digital Library (see the call by Robert Darnton and one response by Roy Tennant). An especially thoughtful response by Paul Courant points out some of the key issues with which I agree.
But there is another key question that lingers for me. Who is the user community or audience?
Most national libraries are mandated to be the library of record for their country’s cultural and intellectual output. The audience is the citizenry, and in most cases also the government. In that sense, it is easier for other countries to develop the digital equivalent of a national library. In fact, CDL exchanges solutions with many national libraries on the problems of capturing web-based publications which have been used in the Web Archiving Service and other digital library tools. The challenge for these libraries to collect their national output, while daunting, at least has a defined limit. In the U.S., for better or worse, no institution has the cultural or organizational authority to create a national library. Instead, our output resides in a large network populated by all types of libraries, each serving a targeted user community.
For research libraries, the answer to the audience question is “scholars”, whether they are students seeking knowledge or the faculty creating new scholarship. Faculty members have worldwide interests, colleagues and connections; their research clearly doesn’t stop at their own campus or even at the wider borders of UC. Universities inherently are about going beyond national and cultural boundaries.
Part of CDL’s vision is to “elevate the digital library to become expansively global” to stay in alignment with the needs of its primary audience. We seek to fulfill this vision in numerous ways such as the Next Generation Melvyl pilot which aims to expand the library catalog for our scholars from the 33 million items in the current version of Melvyl to 210 million items from 72,000 libraries worldwide.
The other side of this global reach is the desire by our faculty to communicate their work to the world. Recently we conducted a survey of scholars using eScholarship, which provides open access publishing services for UC. The main reasons scholars cited for using the services were to achieve broader dissemination of their work—individually and for academic research in general, and to others in their field as well as those in developing countries and even to non-academic practitioners.
CDL also participates in international conversations and organizations such as DataCite in order to support scholarly needs that may differ by discipline but share commonalities across countries. And our participation in the NSF funded DataOne brings us into contact with scientists who aim to “ensure the preservation and access to multi-scale, multi-discipline, and multi-national science data” related to the environment.
Another initiative, HathiTrust began with common goals and audience—to serve the needs of scholars in creating a shared digital library. Now with more than 50 libraries in the U.S. and one international partner, HathiTrust brings an unparalleled opportunity to move beyond a national view. As Paul Courant notes, “Libraries, to the extent that their collection efforts are purposeful—and mostly they are—acquire what is intellectually and culturally important, and what is wanted or needed by their clients. This is reflected in the fact that more than 50 percent of the content in the HathiTrust Digital Library—whose partners as of this writing all reside in the United States—is written in a language other than English.” With the extension to international libraries, the breadth and depth of this library will only grow. Yet without an audience focus, even one as expansive as the interests of scholars, it is difficult to be all things to all people.
Even more so than for the content itself, the demands of the primary audience will shape the services surrounding it. Scholars care about the particular, the unique, and the unusual as much as they seek patterns, repetition and form. They seek the long tail and long time horizons. They value complete and accurate metadata and tools to delve deeply into the content of the texts. Many of the services to support their desires would be difficult for single institutions to justify or sustain, yet a collaborative approach already has yielded impressive results and promises even more if the new partners are willing to contribute.
Is it better to look to a coalition of like-minded institutions focused on the expansive possibilities of scholarly research than to start with a national view? Could we imagine a public library of similar proportions or does the audience for public library services demand a more deeply local perspective? Could we have the best of all worlds with something like Europeana to unite various digital libraries, regardless of their audience allegiance? Darnton acknowledges that existing digital libraries could be “useful and instructive” in creating a national digital library: “Think of HathiTrust, the Internet Archive, the Knowledge Commons Initiative, the California Digital Library, the Digital Library Federation, the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, and other nonprofit enterprises”. Perhaps we already have the makings of an enterprise that allows each component to do what it does best for its own audience. Could we agree on a vision to unite them virtually for a common purpose, not merely to define a national boundary, but to create the basis for a truly global digital library?